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Venezuelan Medical Workers Dying Of COVID-19 At Alarming Rate. How Can The World Get PPE To Them?

FRONTLINE FEAR Venezuelan nurses protest in Caracas for better COVID-19 protection resources from their socialist regime.
Ariana Cubillos
FRONTLINE FEAR Venezuelan nurses protest in Caracas for better COVID-19 protection resources from their socialist regime.

Venezuela's health system has been decimated by catastrophic economic collapse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that's made personal protective equipment, or PPE, especially scarce for Venezuela's health care workers.

One tragic result: of the nearly 500 COVID deaths Venezuela has reported as of this week, almost a third were doctors, nurses and other frontline medical personnel.

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Now there are efforts to get PPE to them, or the funds to buy it on the black market since it's rarely available elsewhere in Venezuela. One is led by Dr. Rafael Gottenger. He's a Venezuelan-American plastic surgeon in Miami who heads the Venezuelan-American Medical Association(VAMA).

Dr. Gottenger spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett about the challenges they face — including the Venezuela regime’s attempts to block them.

READ MORE: Venezuela's Health System Was Already Destroyed? Now Comes the COVID Calamity?

Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

WLRN: Venezuela's COVID-19 pandemic broke out later than most in Latin America, but now there are about 60,000 cases there. That's a 90 percent increase in just the past month. That's the official figure, anyway. Independent medical groups in Venezuela say there are far more. Do you think Venezuela's authoritarian regime is underreporting cases as it's done with past epidemics?

GOTTENGER: Absolutely, yes. We have much more cases. You have to understand, once it started going in Venezuela, because of the lack of PPE, the lack of masks in the population, the lack of protection of the doctors, it started spreading exponentially. But the government, they don't want to show the real data. So the situation is critical in Venezuela.

So amidst this explosion of cases, how bad is the situation for doctors and medical workers there?

Venezuela has the highest rate of doctors’ fatalities with COVID-19 in South America, maybe the world. We have at least 158 doctors that have died in the field. This past Labor Day, four doctors in one place — Margarita Island — died from COVID-19. One of our [VAMA] board members’ classmates in Venezuela — a pediatrician, healthy person — and just because of lack of the right protection, he just passed away this past week.

If you go to any hospital in the country — for example, I just got yesterday a picture of the hospital in Caracas where I trained in Venezuela; it looks like a war zone, like in Syria — if you don’t have water to wash your hands, if you don’t have electricity to sterilize instruments, and on top of that, you don’t have the appropriate PPE to shield them, you can imagine physician’s life gets compromised and they'll die.

Before we talk about your association’s projects, I want to ask you about an unusual one that was just started by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. As we know, the U.S. recognizes him as Venezuela's legitimate president instead of socialist President Nicolás Maduro. So they've given Guaidó access to millions of dollars seized from Maduro’s regime. Guaidó’s now funneling it to Venezuelan health care workers as $100 bonuses — and he's using a digital payment platform called AirTM. I've talked to some doctors there who say they've registered for this. Do you think this project will be successful?

I do think so. If you realize a full month’s salary for a doctor in Venezuela right now is around $5 or $10…

Because of hyperinflation...

Yes. So if you calculate one N95 mask is about $5; a shield is about $10, you see the situation.


But Maduro's regime has made platforms like AirTM illegal because they're not able to tax it or otherwise get their hands on that cash. Do you think they'll have success blocking Guaidó’s payments?

I'm sure there may be ways to block it. But I hope they don't, because we need to be sure that the access to it can be done by the doctors. If that would get blocked, that’s very sad.

Your organization, the Venezuelan American Medical Association, has used a GoFundMe campaignhere to supply PPE to Venezuelan health care workers. You told me you're having to use more underground methods to get the PPE into Venezuela. What can you tell us about the networks you've built there to do that?

I don't want to say publicly because, you know, that can affect how we do it. But we have a network of doctors in Venezuela that we talk to, and we know what their needs are in different places. Then we send supplies directly to the doctors, trying to bypass the government confiscation. And then when the doctor receives it, he will take pictures, and send them to us and that’s how we know it was received OK.

We had so much success with the GoFundMe that now we have decided to expand and do a Zoom telethon with many well known Venezuelan artists. It will be Oct. 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. And we would like to raise $100,000 to help them be protected in Venezuela against COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Dr. Rafael Gottenger
/ Twitter
Dr. Rafael Gottenger

A Venezuelan man gets tested for COVID-19 this summer in Caracas.
Ariana Cubillos / AP
A Venezuelan man gets tested for COVID-19 this summer in Caracas.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.